HC Deb 10 December 1929 vol 233 cc358-66

Where an insured contributor having dependants in respect of whom benefit is payable is able to obtain suitable work only at a distance of more than twenty miles from his home and shows to the satisfaction of the Minister in such manner as the latter may by regulations prescribe either that the work is or is likely to be temporary, or that suitable accommodation, regard being had to the means of the contributor, is not available at his place of employment, benefit shall be payable in respect of his dependants as though he were unemployed; provided that such benefit shall not be payable for more than twenty six weeks in any year and provided that this section shall mot apply to an insured contributor who is earning an average weekly wage of more than fifty shillings."—[Sir R. Aske.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The object of this Clause is to deal with cases of unemployed men with dependants who are unable to get work in their own districts and have to go a considerable distance in order to obtain work. May I give a typical case. Suppose there is on the East coast a man who is unable to get any work in the vicinity of his home but learns that work is available on the West coast. He goes to the West coast and obtains a job. Up to the time when he left home he was in receipt of 32s. a week unemployment benefit; that is, on the assumption that he had a wife and small family. As a shipyard labourer his wages will be about 39s. a week nett. Out of that he will now have to pay about 25s. a week for board and lodging, and is left with only 14s. to send home to his wife, with which sum she has to attempt to pay the rent and to feed and clothe the family. Although when in receipt of unemployment benefit the man was able to keep clear of parish relief the result of his going elsewhere for work is that his wife and family have to go on the parish in order to supplement what he has been able to send them out of his wages. One appreciates that this is a difficult question, and I have no doubt that the Minister will say there are various objections to the proposal as it is framed in this Motion.

The Clause proposes, that where a man cannot get work in his own district and goes to another district to undertake work which is temporary in character—or even of a more permanent character, if it is in a place where he cannot get a house to which to take his wife and family—then under those circumstances and for a limited period he may be able to draw benefit for his dependants in the same way as he would have done if he had remained unemployed. Cases of this kind give rise to a considerable sense of grievance, and they are becoming more and more common as rationalisation or centralisation of work goes on. In the amalgamation of shipyards or factories there is a temptation to close some of them and concentrate work in other places. The result of that is, very often, a temporary demand for considerably more labour than is available in a particular district, and men have to be brought from other districts—in the ordinary course merely temporarily, sometimes for one month or three months and in some cases up to six months. In such cases it is very hard that men who are anxious to work should find their wives and families have temporarily to go on the parish. The situation is likely to become more exaggerated still in certain eventualities which may arise out of the famous Clause 4.

It is possible that more and more frequently men will be required to go to work in various parts of the country away from their homes. Therefore, we ask the Minister to try to deal with this matter, even though it may not be in the particular way suggested in this new Clause. It proposes that dependants' allowances should continue to be payable for a period of not more than 26 weeks, with a limit on the wage of the workman. If it is not possible for the Government to accede to that proposal, perhaps they will accept the principle of the Clause, because it is most desirable that these married men should have the opportunity of taking work, even though it is away from their homes, without being penalised by finding their families driven on to the parish.


If some proposal of this kind can be adopted it will solve some of the problems with which the Minister of Labour has been confronted. I approached the Minister of Labour some time ago with reference to the question of transferred labour, and one of the difficulties which I experienced was that of inducing men to go from one district to another where the wages are so small. I have already quoted the unfortunate illustration from my own part of the country where the wages are 32s. 8d. net. The full wages are 34s. per week, but certain deductions have to be made for insurance and other payments, and the net wage is 32s. 8d. per week for work on the roads. I understand that there is sometimes a further reduction from the 32s. 8d. on account of wet weather, and we have recently had a disproportionate amount of wet weather. It is estimated that three-quarters of a day's wages per week are lost in this way.

I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary has recently been confronted with the difficulty that it is impossible to get men to go from a town like Plymouth into some of the country districts in the County of Cornwall, where the wages are so small. When a man goes to work in another part of the country he has to pay, first of all, for his lodgings, and it is extremely difficult for that man to get lodgings at less than 25s. per week. That man who leaves his home to find work as a transferred workman receives 32s. 8d. per week, and he frequently is obliged to pay between 20s. and 25s. per week for his board and lodgings. The result is that he has left a derisory amount. I am not defending the payment of such wages which has rightly been called a scandal, but that is the difficulty. Whenever I have had an opportunity of interviewing the Department of the Ministry of Labour I have often been confronted with that difficulty.

I know that in some parts of Cornwall an effort has been made to raise wages, and it has been successful in some cases, but even when the wage has been raised to 40s. per week the same difficulty remains. My point is that if a man does comply with a request of the Department by going into a country district in Devon, some provision should be made for his wife in order that she shall not be left to exist on the very narrow margin which is sent to her by her husband which is often barely sufficient to keep body and soul together. That is why we are putting forward this proposal, and if the words of the new Clause cannot be accepted, I hope the principle will be acted upon. I know it may involve some increased burden, but I think it is a burden which we ought to carry. Perhaps some guidance can be given upon this matter, but if it does involve an increased burden then we revert to the position that those who are in need should have the first claim upon the Government.


I am sure that the point which has been raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle, East (Sir R. Aske) is one worthy of sympathetic consideration, but the Government cannot accept the principle which the hon. Member has laid down. This new Clause lays down the principle that an employed man shall receive full unemployment benefit, and that is a proposal which the Government cannot accept. I regret that, because we know that this is a matter of very real grievance, and one which gives considerable concern to men in the distressed areas. It is quite true that men from these areas are sent from one part of the country to another and for long weeks they have to remain there living under difficult conditions while their families are in a different part of the country. It is quite true that certain additions in the shape of lodging allowances are given.


Can the Parliamentary Secretary give any precise particulars in regard to the lodgings allowance?


I am afraid I cannot do that. The principal difficulty in this matter is the housing difficulty. It is a well-known fact that employers find great difficulty in getting men with families to transfer, and the chief difficulty is that there are no houses for them to live in. The whole of the industries of the country are changing in such a way that balances of men and women will have to be removed from one part of the country to another. The problem will have to be dealt with on altogether different lines from that which is proposed, and therefore the Government regret that they cannot accept this new Clause.


I think the Parliamentary Secretary has hardly done justice to this new Clause. After all, we are aware that the housing difficulty is one of the things which has aggravated this problem. These men are unable to find suitable accommodation in the districts to which they are transferred. We are fully aware that one of the difficulties is that a man who has been transferred has to maintain two houses, but I do not think that the Parliamentary Secretary was accurate when he said that what we were proposing to do by this new Clause was to give unemployment benefit to an employed man. What is proposed in this new Clause is not to give unemployment benefit to the man, but to those who are called upon to live under very trying circumstances when the man has been transferred to another district.

May I point out that my hon. Friend who has moved this new Clause is not wedded to dealing with this problem in the particular way suggested by the words? If it be inconvenient or difficult to meet the case in the precise way here indicated, I feel sure that an indication that this problem is going to be faced in some way would go a long way to make us realise that we need not press the Amendment in this particular form. We have had from the Parliamentary Secretary a reference to lodging allowance, but we do not quite know how that operates, and I think we ought to have some kind of assurance that more consideration is going to be given to this matter, and that more is going to be done in regard to it, than has been the case already. The present circumstances are interfering wits the most important principle in dealing with the unemployment problem, namely, the fluidity of labour. Ever since the Industrial Transference Board issued its Report, it has been the aim of the last Government, and I think of the present one, to see that the present distressed areas are not simply made a pool of unemployment which remains stagnant. I think that everyone desires that to be ensured, but no one desires it to be ensured in a way that will be oppressive, not so much to the unemployed man who moves, as to his wife and family whom he is compelled to leave at home. I hope, therefore, that the matter will receive rather more definite and detailed consideration than I have gathered from the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary.


I should like to say a word on this Amendment, in support of what I think is the appeal of the Mover, not so much that the Amendment itself should be accepted, as that some indication should be given to the Committee of how the Government propose to tackle this problem. If I may say so, the answer of the Parliamentary Secretary would have been perfectly sound in any Debate on any previous Unemployment Insurance Bill. It is true that it is almost impossible, when you have an Unemployment Insurance Fund, to throw upon it, the burden of paying benefit to a man, or to the dependants of a man, who is not unemployed; but this Bill, as has often been pointed out, has gone far beyond an Insurance Bill. The State itself is putting money directly into the Fund for certain particular objects, and, while the Amendment would throw the cost of this proposal on to the Fund and not on to the Exchequer, it is a serious question, when once the resources of the Exchequer have been put at the disposal of the Fund for certain objects, whether this is not the most important object to which those contributions could be devoted. Everyone who has had any experience of trying to transfer labour knows that this is the most serious obstacle to exactly the transfer that is most required.

The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned houses, and on that point one reply has been given by the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. Griffith). I should like to give another reply from my own personal experience. A friend of mine offered to take two married miners from South Wales and settle them at his place in the country, providing them and their families with cottages—building cottages for them if, when they once came, they decided to settle down. Those men, at the best, would have had to spend six months while the cottages were being built, and the result was that, although my friend wanted married men preferably, no married miners would accept the offer on those terms. The wages were considerably better than the wages mentioned by the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Foot), but still they were not sufficient to maintain any married man's family during the six months for which he would be absent. This is the most important problem that arises in connection with transference. It is an answer to it to say that expenditure of this kind cannot be thrown upon the Insurance Fund, which is kept up by contributions on an insurance basis. It would be an answer to say, "We cannot afford any more money." But when, as in this scheme, a large volume of Exchequer money is being provided outside the insurance scheme altogether, then, surely, if this particular expenditure is not to fall upon that Exchequer contribution, if that is not one of the objects to which this special Exchequer contribution is to be devoted, I think we might ask the Government to give some indication of how they propose to deal with this problem in other ways, and a rather more extensive indication than was given by the Parliamentary Secretary a few moments ago.


I have every sympathy with the object of this proposed new Clause, but I regret that it has had to be brought in at the end of the Bill, and in a way which I believe cannot be made to apply through the operation of the Bill. I see the difficulty of the Minister and of the Government. It has been urged that you cannot pay an employed man out of an unemployment fund. The Parliamentary Secretary hare said that there is a lodging allowance. That appears really to be going outside the objects of the Unemployment Insurance Fund, and it would appear that, if a lodging allowance can be made, a dependant's family allowance might be made. The prime difficulty, however, is that under this scheme no man ought to be transferred into a wage that does not permit him to keep his family. That is the difficulty that has to be met. I represent one section of a very large area in South Wales which has been very much hit by the transference scheme, and. I have had to go to the Ministry many times. I am bound to say that I have always received as sympathetic consideration as it is possible for the Minister to give under the law, but the difficulties that have arisen have shown that there is a tremendous hiatus in our methods of dealing with the problem of the transference of unemployed labour.

The difficulty arises that, when a man is transferred from one occupation to another, he is invariably compelled to take up one of the lowest paid jobs, usually a labourer's job, where the wage may vary from 10d. to 1s. 2d. per hour; ant, no matter what he gets in his new job, if he is living away from home and has to maintain the wife and family whom he has left behind, he is left in a very difficult situation. I would suggest that the Government, before they complete the Bill, should meet this difficulty. It is not merely a passing phase; it is not something that will pass away in a few months.

The hon. Member who moved the Clause mentioned the question of rationalisation. We are now getting into a position in which industry is avoiding those violent rises and falls which used to take place a few years ago. We have overcome the violent over-production of commodities, with consequent slumps, and we have passed from the era when, while the percentage of unemployed was at one period 3 or 4 per cent. or less, at another period it was 6 or 7 per cent. Industry has overcome that difficulty, and we have now got more correlation between production and available consuming power. But, while industry and the controllers of industry avoid these sudden rises and falls over periods of six, seven, eight or nine years, we have in place of that a permanent reservoir of surplus labour, which is likely to be kept filled for a very considerable period by the process that is now called rationalisation. It seems to me that before long we shall begin to call it irrationalisation unless some means—


The hon. Member is now going a long way from the proposed new Clause.


I am coming back to the question of surplus labour, transfer, and the maintenance of the man who is transferred. At any rate, that is the point which I wish to make. This is a very serious problem and is not a matter which can be dealt with in any party manner. It is a human problem which concerns a very large number of our fellow countrymen and I am sure that sooner or later it will have to be dealt with along the lines laid down in "Labour and the Nation"—the Labour patty's programme—by the establishment of a living wage.


Why not the Yellow Book?


This is a question of dependants allowances and not of what might be done under any other Measure which might be produced at any other time.


I leave the matter where it is. I have said what I wanted to say, and I conclude with the hope that before very long the House of Commons will see its way to make adequate provision for dealing with conditions such as I have indicated.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.